In Canada, ending the COVID-19 pandemic is about one thing, and one thing only: vaccines.
Sure, there have been lockdowns and curfews and stay-at-home orders at various times and of various lengths in different provinces. But most provincial governments have treated those centuries-old, proven pandemic countermeasures as inconvenient precursors to the next reopening, and not as an end in themselves, ever since news of the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines broke last fall.
Australia took a different tack. So did much of Asia. So did Canada’s four Atlantic provinces. They locked down and didn’t blink when their new cases hit rock bottom, with the result that their cases and deaths have been relatively few, and their economies have largely reopened.
And they did it without a drop of vaccine. In Australia, where since September the curve of new cases has been almost as flat as the central Australian outback, a muddled rollout of vaccines is not nearly the crisis it is in Canada, where a giant new wave of cases is cresting.
The upshot is that Canada is utterly reliant on a successful vaccination campaign to do what inconsistent, half-hearted and often belated countermeasures were never given the chance to do – bring the pandemic under control.
So how’s it going? Not great.
Vaccinations can bring an infectious disease under control by helping a community achieve herd immunity – a state where the combined number of inoculated people and those who are immune thanks to having been infected is such that there are few people left who are susceptible to catching and transmitting the disease.
Public Health Ontario estimated in January that between 53 and 84 per cent of the Canadian population would need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
The lower number, 53 per cent, would be all that was required in a perfect world, where everyone was given the new messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, with their efficacy rate of about 95 per cent, there were no unco-operative virus variants, and people strictly adhered to masking and distancing guidelines.
The higher number, 84 per cent, is more likely what will be required in the world we live in – where clinical efficacy estimates aren’t always reached, there are mutating variants that may be vaccine-resistant and, believe it or not, not everyone practises COVID-19 safety protocols as much as they should.
Given this, any hesitancy on the part of Canadians to take a vaccine could hurt the nation’s vaccination campaign.
A recent Angus Reid poll found that 66 per cent of people surveyed plan to take the first vaccine offered, and that fewer than 10 per cent say they won’t touch the stuff. That’s good, but there is still a worrisome gap between the two-thirds of Canadians who won’t hesitate and the likely higher proportion required to achieve herd immunity.
That gap may be the reason that vaccination appointments for people aged 70 and up have gone unclaimed; in Ontario, as many as 30,000 were sitting available in the last week of March.
This is unacceptable in a country that has chosen vaccinations as its path out of the pandemic, at the expense of tougher public-health countermeasures used from Australia to Atlantic Canada, such as firmer (but shorter) lockdowns and properly monitored borders.
Ontario and Quebec are taking pro-active steps to fight hesitancy, by lowering the age minimum for vaccine eligibility in hard-hit areas, and taking doses directly to essential workers and the neighbourhoods where they live.
But that won’t be enough. The provinces need to make it easy for everyone to get vaccinated, with simple ways of signing up, more walk-in clinics and clear messaging about who can get it, when and where.
The provinces, along with Ottawa, also need to aggressively address public worries related to the inevitable glitches that come with any inoculation campaign, such as Tuesday’s news that the United States is pausing the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because six people developed blood clots, out of seven million who have received a dose.
Today, Canada is suffering from a relative shortage of vaccine doses. That won’t be tomorrow’s problem. Governments have to act now, with an urgency that was so often missing this past year, to ensure this country doesn’t run into an issue already seen in parts of the U.S.: a shortage of willing arms.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.